New York was an object of great importance during the American Revolution. At the kick off of the Path through History project in August 2012, plenary speaker Ken Jackson, Columbia University, criticized New York for its inadequate efforts to tell its story compared to what Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts are doing. He welcomed the opportunity that New York finally was going to get it right.
By coincidence, at the New York History community roundtable convened by Assemblyman Englebright several weeks ago in connection with his proposed New York History Commission, he began with a similar plea for New York to tell its story as well as those same states Jackson had mentioned 20 months earlier. He was particularly incensed over the new TV show Turn about America’s first spy ring set in the very community he represents.
That show has been the subject of two recent New York History posts by Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, “AMC’s Turn: Lively Fiction, But Tenuous Connection to Facts,” and “Fact and Fiction in Brian Kilenade’s ‘Secret Six.’” Her focus, as suggested by the titles of the posts, is on the accuracy of Hollywood in its depiction of the historical story. This makes sense since she has been a New York Council for the Humanities speaker on the subject. She stated her concerns in an email to me:
“We historians work long and hard to represent historical events as closely as we can to the truth. It seems a never-ending challenge to refute errors works distributed via mass media for popular consumption that purport to be nonfiction but are glaringly not.”
Engelbright’s concerns are consistent with Jackson’s: the ongoing failure of New York to promote its own story. That deficiency is now compounded by the TV show whether it is accurate or not.
Setauket, Long Island, has been recreated in Virginia where the show is filmed. At the end of each show there is a plug for Virginia. It is Virginia which is promoting visiting Virginia for American Revolution tourism and using the Culper Spy of Long Island to do so. Now Virginia not only does a better job of telling its own story in the American Revolution than New York does, it does a better job of telling New York’s story!
Hollywood has provided another squandered opportunity for New York to promote its story in American Revolution. The network show Sleepy Hollow uses actual aerial photography of the village showing the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River (before the new construction). With a population of 144,000, the TV town dwarfs the real village by a factor of more than 10. The fictional population number draws on the New Testament Rapture and indeed the show portrays a cosmic showdown between the forces of light led by George Washington and those of darkness. Still, one should keep mind, as I reported in a previous post on Thomas Cole’s painting of Fort Putnam, that the historical showdown between Washington and Arnold was understood by the people of the time in precisely those terms.
Given these two gifts from Hollywood, one might think that finally New York would rise to occasion and give a shout-out to its own place at the birth of the country. It’s not as if people at the grassroots level aren’t trying. For example, there was a huge article “Where the Past Is Never Left Behind” in the New York Times last September by a wife and mother who learned to love her family visits to Fort Ticonderoga despite her initial misgiving about five-hour trip to see re-enactments. This is real heads-to-beds tourist trip to upstate New York which is exactly what the Path program is supposed to encourage. You don’t just happen to visit Fort Ti, you have to make the effort to go there. But Fort Ti’s eleventh annual seminar on the American Revolution will be in September so it is not part of the June Path body count. Neither was its French and Indian War seminar in May. Maybe next year they’ll move the events.
Here in Westchester where I live, a new group is forming to promote the story of the American Revolution in the county. The first meeting was held in May at Iona College. It recently has taken possession of the Tom Paine Museum located up the road from the school. The College has presented at the last two social studies teachers conferences in Westchester and is seeking to brand itself as the American Revolution school in the county. As it turns out, Jeff Cleary, the new pastor at the White Plains Presbyterian Church which just celebrated its 350th anniversary, relocated from the very Presbyterian Church in Setauket that the spies attended. One of the people buried in that White Plains church is Jacob Purdy whose house a few blocks away was used as Washington’s Headquarters during the Battle of White Plains in 1776 and 1778. It is now is home to the White Plains Historical Society. (Note: Neither Tom Paine nor the White Plains Washington’s Headquarters are on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary.)
Attending the meeting at Iona College was Jim Kaplan who lives nearby. He recently forwarded an announcement to The New York History Blog about the activities which have been organized for July 4th in Lower Manhattan. Speaking to Community Board 1 in Manhattan, Kaplan expressed shock at the appalling lack of knowledge by people who live and work in Lower Manhattan of the American Revolution events which occurred there. I attended a planning session at Fraunces Tavern for what the people hope will become an annual program to remember those events. The immediate area and the five boroughs in general abound in American Revolution sites and stories. The number of American Revolution Paths through History which could be created in New York is mind-boggling.
As it turns out, one intrepid reporter created such a path. Simone Streeter described in an article entitled “Manhattan Day Trip to the Nation’s Start,” how she crafted her own American Revolution tour in Manhattan. She visited the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum “situated along the narrow spine of upper Manhattan.” She thus linked Washington, Hamilton, and Burr. She detailed what subways she took and where one could eat in this one-day excursion into our birth story. Carol Ward, the executive director of the Morris-Jumel Mansion was the keynote speaker at the “Museums as Community Hubs” conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, June 2 in Mystic. As it turns out she lives in Westchester and I invited her to join our effort there to promote the American Revolution.
(Note: Morris-Jumel Mansion with its Burr connection is listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary, Hamilton is not. Neither is Federal Hall nor Trinity Church. One would never know from the Path itinerary that the iconic image of the statue of George III being toppled after the reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred in Lower Manhattan.)
On June 11, a press conference was held along the Old Albany Post Road in Philipstown, Putnam County. The Preservation League of New York State selected the six-mile stretch as one of its biannual Seven to Save threatened historic sites in the state. The road which continues north to the Fishkill Supply Depot was used by numerous Revolutionary dignitaries like Washington. Arnold’s home that he successfully fled from was located near the road but closer to the Hudson River as he rowed, or was rowed, to work at West Point.
(Note: No site in either Dutchess or Putnam County is listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary.)
As previously reported, people in Central New York aka the Mohawk Valley created their own Revolutionary War Path through History with a website, a brochure, and a performance this August of Drums along the Mohawk with the Historical Society of Rockland County planning a bus trip to even further upstate.
(Note: Four sites in the Mohawk Valley are listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary. On the theme page which is separate from the itinerary, there is a link to the much more comprehensive and locally-created Mohawk Path through History site. That site includes many locations not on the state website for the American Revolution.)
As an example of the continued but unsung legacy of the American Revolution, when the World War II destroyer the USS Slater was brought by tugboat from Albany to Staten Island for repairs, Rosehn Gipe, the business manager for the Destroyer escort Historical Museum said about the challenge of bringing the ship south: “There’s a choke point at West Point” in explaining why the journey couldn’t be done in the winter. Once again the famous S-curve that was crucial in the thinking of protecting the object of great importance during the Revolution made itself felt. At least there was no chain there this time.
(Note: Ironically while the USS Slater was sailing south past the fort Arnold tried to transfer to the British, the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, CT., Arnold’s hometown, opened an exhibit “Key to Liberty: Benedict Arnold, an American Hero on Lake Champlain” with a focus on the Battle of Valcour. A local group is planning a musical. Even Connecticut is telling the story of what happen in New York during the American Revolution.)
To add insult to injury, there was a press release on June 9, “Museum of the American Revolution Reveals as Detailed Exhibit Plans, Overview of Museum Experience Designed to Engage in Our Heritage: The museum will bring to life the events, people and ideals of the founding of the United States.” The museum will be in Philadelphia.
The Path through History website does list several of the sites mentioned above. But if you are the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society planning a visit to sites related to him, don’t waste your time with the Path website. If you are interested in Benedict Arnold and Major Andre don’t waste your time either. And there is only one Washington’s headquarters listed, the state site. Amazingly, if you do visit that one in Newburgh, you learn that it is closely connected with two nearby sites involved in the American Revolution also managed by the state, New Windsor Cantonment and Knox’s Headquarters, neither of which are listed on the Path site. Nor is Mount Gulian where Von Steuben stayed and the Sons of Cincinnati was formed.
In Westchester, Cuomo’s home county, the record is equally abysmal. Consider some of what else is missing besides sites noted above.
1. The Rochambeau Trail which crosses New York – it serves as a reminder how our story is connected to events in other states.
2. The Rye Historical Society – John Adams stopped there when he traveled the Boston Post Road to Philadelphia.
3. The John Jay sites: one is a state site and the other just got a Path through History sign and both are omitted!
John Glover, the Massachusetts fisherman inbetween ferrying the troops to safety after the Battle of Long island and then across the Delaware was instrumental in the Battle of Pell. That battleground is now a municipal golf course. Tours led there by NPS St. Paul’s Church, Mount Vernon, have to be carefully scheduled or you still will be hit by small fast-moving objects!
People in New York are trying to tell the story. It’s struggle. They need help.
Even the locations where there are the famous New York State historical markers commemorating the events of the American Revolution aren’t listed. Nor are various monuments and memorials. They don’t rate being listed under Path criteria. So if you are a real American Revolutionary enthusiast and want to immerse yourself in New York’s story, don’t waste your time with the Path website.
Jackson’s hope of New York successfully telling its story about the birth of the country is far from being fulfilled. The website isn’t simply abysmal, it’s an embarrassment. ILoveNY doesn’t have the expertise, staff, or resources to tell the story of New York’s role in America’s birth for cultural heritage tourists or in professional development programs for teachers. How do we get the legislature and Governor to realize that?
Illustrations: John Van Arsdale raising the American flag over Fort George; middle, George Washington Returning to New York City on Evacuation Day; and below, American Revolution battles in upstate New York.